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Desperate struggle to save lives

Railman, others remove tankers as inferno rages

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Work continues Friday at the crash site in Lac-Megantic, Que., of a train that  derailed, igniting tanker cars carrying crude oil. Fifty people are feared dead.

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Work continues Friday at the crash site in Lac-Megantic, Que., of a train that derailed, igniting tanker cars carrying crude oil. Fifty people are feared dead.

LAC-MâGANTIC, Que. -- A description has emerged of the frantic moment when the train driver at the centre of the Quebec derailment disaster rushed to the fiery scene in the hope of saving lives.

One of the men who risked his life alongside Tom Harding said the railman's knowledge played a role in removing several oil-filled cars before they, too, could go up in flames in downtown Lac-M©gantic.

Serge Morin told The Canadian Press the group of men was trying to detach a few unscathed wagons from the end of the derailed train when Harding suddenly appeared at their side, wearing a firefighting suit.

He doubts their efforts made a difference in the tragic result: 50 people are feared to have been killed. But he saluted the bravery of the railman in helping steer scorching-hot tankers from the area.

"He really helped us," Morin, who didn't catch Harding's name that night and only learned later that he was the train's driver, said Friday.

Morin credited Harding with guiding the group though the process of depressurizing the train's air brakes, which enabled them to move some of the cars to safety.

Harding's role is a central question in ongoing investigations into the tragedy; his own company called him a hero one day, then announced the next he had been suspended amid concerns about his role in the disaster.

Morin, who has some experience fighting fires at the nearby plant where he works, said the group towed nine cars about 500 metres from the blaze using the combined horsepower of a loader and a mobile rail-car mover.

He had brought the rail-car mover from his factory. Another local, Pascal Lafontaine, overheard their conversations on a radio and offered the services of a loader from his family's excavation business.

'Everything we did there that night didn't change anything -- 50 people disappeared. And whether (Harding) helped us or not, there would have still been 50'

But after the crew had moved the first string of five tankers, the rail-car mover was unable to find a level crossing to re-enter the tracks. And the loader was not equipped with a tool designed to deactivate the wagons' air brakes.

That's around the time Harding appeared. He came wearing a firesuit, helmet and visor he had borrowed from the municipal fire department.

Morin said he was surprised to see a railway worker arrive amid the chaos.

Harding, Morin added, told them to break the tubing on the wagons with the loader to release the air. The team pulled the remaining four tankers, two at a time, away from the blaze with the loader.

"What is certain is that he knew this stuff and, yes, at first glance, he was needed because we wouldn't have been able to move (the tankers) with the loader," said Morin, who, looking back, doesn't think their efforts changed much.

"Everything we did there that night didn't change anything -- 50 people disappeared. And whether (Harding) helped us or not, there would have still been 50."

He said Lafontaine rushed to help even though he already knew his wife, brother and sister-in-law had been inside Le Musi-Caf© bar, close to the epicentre of the crash.

Lafontaine, Morin added, only told him about his missing loved ones after they'd moved the wagons.

He described all the men as nervous. After one big, terrifying blast, they all questioned whether they should stick around.

"At that moment we asked each other, 'Do we continue?' "

After a 15-second pause, they had made their decision, he added.

"We said, 'Let's do it.' "

Morin believes that explosion around 4 a.m. was set off by propane tanks behind a nearby crematorium.

Throughout the night, the workers also had to contend with a loud, eerie, kettle-like whistle Morin thinks came from the burning rail tankers as they cracked under the blistering heat.

When they first got to work, Morin said a group of firefighters blasted the flames with their hoses to set up a line of defence.

The task lasted from shortly after the derailment, around 1:30 a.m., until roughly 7 a.m.

Harding had completed his shift a few hours earlier and left the train unattended to sleep at a local inn.

An inn worker said she saw him rush out of the building with a look of horror on his face after the first explosion.

The chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has said Harding stated he'd shut down 11 handbrakes on the train, but that his claim had been called into question.

Ed Burkhardt initially told reporters Harding had been suspended without pay, but an official at the company said Friday their employee was still receiving his paycheque. Burkhardt said Harding is under police watch, that criminal charges are being considered, and Harding will likely never work for MMA again.

Several people in Lac-M©gantic have described Harding as a friendly guy.

Harding stayed at that inn one or two nights per week. The resident of Farnham, Que., frequently passed through town because of his work.

A column in La Presse Friday describes Harding as a second-generation railman whose father was a train engineer, as are two of his brothers.

He is a pivotal player in probes by police and the Transportation Safety Board, as well as potential lawsuits and insurance claims.

One federal official warned Friday against singling out any individual.

Without mentioning Harding, the head of the TSB said the organization always operates under the assumption that, in tragedies such as these, a series of events was at play.

"It never comes down to one individual," said chairwoman Wendy Tadros.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 B14

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